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Lee Strasberg, Class of 1918

Lee Strasberg (1901-1982) was best known as a founding member of the Group Theatre and as the main teacher of “Method” acting in the United States.

Lee Strasberg was born Israel Strasberg in Galicia, then part of Austria-Hungary, on November 17, 1901. He was brought to Manhattan’s Lower East Side at age seven. Strasberg’s father was a garment worker and was active in a trade union which supported community theater. It was in this Yiddish Theatre that Strasberg was first exposed to the naturalistic style of acting. While he was still a young boy he joined the amateur Progressive Dramatic Club, whose leaders were quite familiar with the theories of Constantine Stanislavsky, the great acting coach and director of the Moscow Art Theatre.

After leaving Townsend Harris High School in 1918 to work as a clerk in a wig factory, he studied acting at the American Laboratory Theatre under Richard Boleslavsky and Maria Ouspenskaya, both former students of Stanislavsky. He also gained his first experience as a director as a member of an amateur theatrical group that produced plays in the Christie Street Settlement House, a social center on the Lower East Side.

Strasberg’s professional career in the theater began when he joined the Theatre Guild as an actor and assistant stage manager in 1924. It was at the Theatre Guild that Strasberg met Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford, two young Theatre Guild staffers who were dissatisfied with the commercial bent of the New York theater scene. Strasberg, Clurman, and Crawford began to meet informally with other similarly discontented young theater people, and eventually these informal meetings grew into rehearsals and workshops. In 1931 the Theatre Guild released the rights to Paul Green’s The House of Connelly to the young idealists, and the Group Theatre was born on Broadway.

The Group Theatre was a unique establishment in the history of the American theater. Under the leadership of Strasberg, Clurman, and Crawford, the Group attempted to establish a company of actors, designers, directors, and playwrights who would create artistically notable works for the Broadway stage while maintaining social accountability. The Group Theatre’s policies and practices fostered the talents of such notable names as Lee J. Cobb, Clifford Odets, and Elia Kazan (who started with the Group as an intern actor), among others. Strasberg blossomed as a director and acting coach with the Group, achieving his greatest success with Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1933), for which the author won the 1934 Pulitzer Prize. In his account of the Group Theatre, The Fervent Years (1957), Harold Clurman described Strasberg as “one of the few artists among American theatre directors. He is the director of introverted feeling, of strong emotion curbed by ascetic control…. The effect he produces is a classic hush, tense and tragic…. The roots are clearly in the intimate experience of a complex psychology, an acute awareness of human contradiction and suffering.”

Strasberg left the Group in 1937 and pursued interests in Hollywood through most of the 1940s. He returned to Broadway to direct occasionally, achieving success with such works as Clifford Odets’ Clash by Night (1941). He returned to New York to stay in 1948 to become the director and dominant force of the Actors Studio, an organization started by Kazan, Crawford, and Robert Lewis. The Studio was to be a workshop and training ground for actors, not a vehicle for public performance. Strasberg was the artistic director and guiding spirit of the Actors Studio for 34 years, from 1948 until his death in 1982, and his reputation as America’s finest acting teacher spread worldwide by the 1970s, resulting in frequent invitations to lecture and teach in Europe. Strasberg’s influence on American acting is undeniable and measurable. At his 75th birthday it was estimated that actors trained by him had received 24 Academy Awards and 108 nominations.

Strasberg’s effectiveness as a teacher derived from his interest in the psychology of dramatic interpretation and from his emphasis on the actor’s private personality as the raw material from which performance should be created. Combining the theories of Stanislavsky and some modern psychology, he urged his students to create “backlife” for their characters, previous and subsequent histories based on assumptions from facts in the script. The areas examined were from the most tragic (such as loss of a parent) to the most mundane (such as brushing one’s teeth). The object of this training was to break down the artificiality of acting by instilling in the actor such a familiarity with the character that the role ceased to be distinct from the actor’s self. In this way, the personality of the performer became a functional part of stage technique.

Strasberg was married three times: to Nora Z. Krecaun in 1926 (she died in 1929), to Paula Miller in 1934 (who died in 1966), and to Anna Mizrahi in 1968. He had four children: two by Miller (Susan—an actress—and John) and two by Mizrahi (Adam and David). Strasberg’s career as a stage actor ended in 1929 with his retirement, and his career as a film actor began in 1974 with his role as Hyman Roth in The Godfather, Part II, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor in 1975. His other film appearances included The Cassandra Crossing (1976), Boardwalk (1979), Going in Style (1979), and And Justice for All (1980). His television appearances included roles in The Last Tenant (1981) and Skokie (1981).

Strasberg died of a heart attack on February 17, 1982, in New York City, several days after appearing in a benefit chorus line at Radio City Music Hall.